SOCHI, Russia (AP) - In the fading light in the mountains above Sochi, the athletes and flags from Russia and Ukraine appeared side by side Saturday, united by success on the opening day of action at the Paralympics as the discord between their nations deepens.
The collection of gold, silver and bronze medals amassed by Ukraine justified - in sporting terms - the decision before Friday’s opening ceremony not to boycott the Winter Games in protest at Russia’s military occupation of the nearby Crimean peninsula.
The confrontation, which escalated in the days after the Olympics ended here, has taken the shine off Sochi in the two-week lead in to the Paralympics as Russian President Vladimir Putin challenged the sovereignty of part of his neighbor’s territory.
And from Ukraine’s first Paralympic medalist in Sochi, there was a clear message sent back to her troubled homeland.
“I devote my first medal in Sochi to an independent Ukraine,” said Olena Iurkovska, who won bronze in the women’s 6 kilometer sitting biathlon.
The four-time Paralympian appeared at the medal ceremony alongside Svetlana Konovalova of Russia, who beat her to silver.
“Every time I race, it will be for Ukrainian independence and peace in my country,” Iurkovska said.
Focusing on sports is not easy for some Ukrainians against the backdrop of the strife unfolding about 300 miles (475 kilometers) west of Sochi on the Black Sea coast.
But as well as two further bronze medals in the biathlon, Maksym Yarovyi claimed silver in the men’s 7.5-kilometer sitting event, and Vitaliy Lukyanenko took gold in the visually impaired class ahead of a Russian.
“The most important thing in sport is not to beat a competitor, but to beat yourself,” Lukyaneko said.
And what the team hopes for most is peace in Ukraine - a sentiment it chanted during Thursday’s welcoming ceremony in the Alpine Village.
“The situation is very difficult and very sad,” Yarovyi said through an interpreter. “But at the moment I’m trying to relax and concentrate on my sports and trying not to think about things in a negative way.”
Yarovyi was beaten to gold by Roman Petushkov - a Russian sporting rival but not a foe.
“This is sport. This is not about politics,” Yarovyi said. “I really appreciate and really support all sportsmen no matter what their nationality is.
“The past week was difficult for me because it was changing all the time whether we participate or not.”
Having chosen to, Ukraine ended the first day of action third in the standings, only behind Germany and leader Russia.
Although one young Russian medalist - 16-year-old Alexey Bugaev - suggested Russia and Ukraine are “joined.”
“I think we are together, and this is sad what is going on,” Bugaev, who won silver in the downhill standing event at the Rosa Khutor Alpine Center, said through an interpreter. “But we are all Slavic and we must support each other.”
That could just be what Putin wants to hear as he goes around the Sochi region embracing Russian sports success, while isolated in European capitals. The crisis in Ukraine has overshadowed the second phase of Putin’s bid to use the Winter Games to polish his country’s image abroad.
But the Russian medal chase is going to plan.
“I do hope that the team will keep the pace you have set,” Putin told them at a meeting Saturday.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris
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